New research says the push to have students take algebra by 8th grade has hurt, not helped, students

Published: Monday, April 8 2013 10:20 p.m. MDT

Decades ago, baby boomers who took Algebra I usually took it in ninth grade or later. Today, the majority of U.S. students take something called Algebra I, but it's usually taught in eighth grade.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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A new study from the Brookings Institution questioned the national push toward algebra-for-all by eighth grade, and found that the equation is a simple one: teaching algebra and other advanced math courses earlier than the ninth grade does not equal improved achievement.

Decades ago, baby boomers who took Algebra I usually took it in ninth grade or later. Today, the majority of U.S. students take something called Algebra I, but it's usually taught in eighth grade. Often, the class is a watered-down version of what Algebra I used to be — though the average eighth-grader is likely to say it's plenty tough.

The new study's findings, released in March, follow previous research suggesting that teaching algebra too soon hurts school outcomes for disadvantaged and late-blooming students, and correlates with a trend toward offering simplified algebra courses that slow the progress of high achievers.

Why so soon?

The push that shoved algebra to eighth grade in the U.S. began in the 1980s as part of an effort to increase international competitiveness by turning out more math whizzes and coincided with efforts to ensure that historically underserved middle school students weren't shut out of opportunities to attend college, according to the Brookings Institution's 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education.

"There is a general assumption that one of the ways to improve performance of American students in math is to have them take harder courses earlier," said Harvard policy professor Tom Loveless, author of the study.

That notion has been wedded to another idea — that it would improve opportunities for students who traditionally lack them if all students took algebra or another advanced math class such as geometry, Loveless said. Concern about improving opportunities and outcomes for Hispanic, black and economically disadvantaged students — who are statistically less likely to take those classes — added momentum to the algebra-for-all push.

More pressure grew from a desire to ensure that college-bound students take some calculus in high school. Teaching algebra in eighth grade allows students to complete a sequence of Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, Pre-Calc/Trigonometry and Calculus before high school graduation.

But, pushing kids into eighth-grade algebra hasn't helped. After exhaustive research, the Brookings study found that U.S. states that increased the percentage of students taking algebra in eighth grade were no more likely to see overall math achievement gains than other states.

"It's sounds attractive, but there is no apparent benefit from compelling all eighth-graders to take an advanced math class," Loveless said.

More harm than good

Other research suggests that teaching algebra to students who aren't ready to learn it brings unfortunate results.

A 2012 North Carolina study of 141,000 students found students taking algebra early scored significantly lower on end-of-course tests in Algebra I. And, they were less likely to pass standard follow-up courses.

That suggests that though strong math students can benefit from taking algebra in eighth grade, it is "decidedly harmful" for weaker math students to be rushed into advanced math concepts, Loveless said. Efforts to create equity for low-performing students from disadvantaged backgrounds by sweeping all students into advanced math courses can backfire, he added.

Loveless's study showed that the average math achievement level in the U.S. dropped as the number of students taking eighth-grade algebra classes has increased. His study didn't prove a causal relationship, but Loveless said the coincidence is worth further study.

As more students were shunted into eighth-grade algebra, the level of rigor in the courses dropped.

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